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'It felt like we had achieved something for the people in the club that won 30 years ago'

Niamh O’Callaghan’s Sarsfields recently ended a 30-year famine. Now, the Cork senior champions go in search of more.

THERE REALLY IS nothing like winning with the club. 

aib-gaa-club-championships-launch Sarsfields and Cork star Niamh O'Callaghan. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

No matter how it’s done, it’s special, but perhaps more so after heartbreak and near misses. And even more special when you take a step back and look at the history involved.

Sarsfields ended a 30-year wait for Cork senior camogie championship glory two weeks ago, lifting the trophy for just the second time in their history. Even more fittingly, this year the club celebrates its 50th anniversary.

And on the day, they knocked Iniscarra off their perch, the Cork kingpins bidding for four-in-a-row. You couldn’t write it, really.

A little over a week on, Niamh O’Callaghan can still hardly believe it. A massive, massive win. 

“It was unreal,” the star defender smiles, preparing for a Munster semi-final against Tipperary’s Drom-Inch tomorrow. “It’s just sinking in now, really.

“Before the match, the team ourselves, we wouldn’t really have been thinking about the history that was involved in bridging the 30-year gap and those things. Now, in hindsight, looking back it’s lovely to be able to bring back the cup to the people…

“There’s mothers there whose daughters are now playing. They would have played 30 years ago. It is lovely, it’s an unreal feeling.”

Her mother, Colette, wasn’t playing, while her aunt hurled a bit here and there but wasn’t on the 1989 team. Regardless, O’Callaghan still well and truly feels the weight and significance of the win. 

niamh-ocallaghan-colette-ocallaghan-and-john-ocallaghan With her parents, Colette and John, after the 2018 All-Ireland win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A victory to be shared with many.

“They all kind of would have done bits and pieces,” she says of those mentioned before.

“It was nice to be able to bring it back to those people. There’s been a lot of years there where there’s been nothing really happening in the club… underage for us when we were younger. All the effort now that was pumped in is showing, which is great.”

A selfless and modest individual, it’s lovely to sit back and listen to just how much this means. O’Callaghan has also been flying the flag with the Cork seniors of late, since her breakthrough from the intermediate set-up as she mad her full senior championship debut last June. 

She went on to star at corner back in the Rebels’ All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny last September; another special, special day.

They can’t exactly be compared, though. They are absolutely different in their own right. But then again, winning with club — and doing so in the manner that Sarsfields did — is just like nothing else, really.

“In a way, with your club it’s nearly more personal to a certain extent,” O’Callaghan nods.

“There’s tradition, there’s history involved… it’s the same with Cork obviously, don’t get me wrong. But I suppose you have the connections there with these girls that you would have played with since you were young. We’ve all come up through it together.

“Like that, you have the family involvement, hugely. It’s like a small community, a really close knit community. There was a huge sense of relief as well. It felt like we had achieved something for the people in the club that would have won 30 years ago, that are still around and were really driving us on to get there again.

niamh-ocallaghan-celebrates After the 2018 final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It’s nice to be able to bring that back to them, it kind of is that bit more meaningful in a sense with the club.”

It’s about much more than her, much more than the team.

And it’s one everyone enjoyed together, although they curtailed the celebrations fairly quickly with a Munster semi-final to prepare for. But perhaps bringing an end to Iniscarra’s — Rena Buckley’s club – dominance in the county added even a little bit more to the success and gave them even more to celebrate.

O’Callaghan agrees. 

“They’re a very strong side and they have set the bar really for Cork camogie. They were going for four-in-a-row, yeah. We’ve had many a match against them where we’ve come out the other end.

“We would have went in as underdogs and I suppose it would have suited us too to a certain extent. It made it that bit more special beating a quality side.”

With some really talented younger players in their ranks — a cohort of those U16 All-Ireland winners with Cork — and Sarsfields’ underage production line harvesting a succession of county titles, one can expect to see them dining at the top table for many years to come. 

But one who has been doing it all at the top through the harder times is Emer Fennell.

Maybe better known as Emer O’Farrell, who played for Cork 10 years ago or so, the now-married Fennell — her husband is their manager, Emmett — is the side’s star player and key leader. 

emer-ofarrell-with-jacqui-frisby O'Farrell facing Kilkenny in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“She is flying it,” O’Callaghan grins. “She’s idolised really in the club.

“We’ve always looked up to her. I remember playing U14 Feile and she was one of the older girls that were mentoring us. She came along with us to the matches. I have memories of her at that age.

“To be playing alongside her now… she’s just like a buddy of ours. She really is brilliant and she really is a leader. All through the season, she has been that leader that we’ve all looked up to.”

Surely O’Callaghan, a teacher by trade, is someone the younger part of the team look up to now too. To have a county senior player in a county set-up is always valuable. 

And for her, there’s value too. This journey that Sarsfields are on helps make up for some of the disappointment suffered in the Rebel red this summer. The hurt caused by a semi-final exit and the subsequent end to their three-in-a-row bid at the hands of Galway.

“A point,” she frowns as she remembers how close they were. “On the day, Galway were just that bit stronger and they went on obviously to prove that again in the final. They’re a very strong side.”

“I suppose that’s great for camogie as well,” she adds of how open the 2020 will be.

“It proves there’s more challenging matches, more competition which is always brilliant. After last year… regardless, every year is a new year and you start out again fresh. You’re ready to go regardless of the result of the previous year.”

aib-gaa-club-championships-launch Launching the AIB club championships. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

With uncertainty surrounding Paudie Murray’s return to the helm and the future of some older players in the set-up, O’Callaghan says there’s no word on who’ll be back and who’s staying on.

“No, there hasn’t to be perfectly honest with you. There hasn’t been anything sorted yet or anything set in stone. We’re just waiting and seeing how we go over the next few weeks. Our focus really is club now at the moment.”

That it is, and there’s nowhere else you’d want it.

All eyes are on tomorrow [throw-in 1.30pm at Sarsfields, Cork], and Drom-Inch who stopped Tipperary powerhouse Burgess-Duharra’s eight-in-a-row tilt.

It sounds like bonus territory to some, but not exactly for O’Callaghan.

“It is new territory for us,” she concludes, nodding her head. “We’ve never been there.

“For ourselves, we have nothing to lose in it really. We’ve set out and achieved our goal for the year and I suppose everything else now… it’s not a bonus, we’ll drive on and we’ll give it our best shot. It’s not as if we’re not taking it seriously by any means.

“We have the heads put down already, focusing on Sunday. We’re ready to go.”

***

Sarsfields and Cork Camogie player Niamh O’Callaghan is pictured at the launch of the AIB Camogie and Club Championships. This is AIB’s 29th year sponsoring the AIB GAA Football, Hurling and their 7th year sponsoring the Camogie Club Championships.

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Emma Duffy

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